Women and the Personal Pronoun

Having trouble with the letter “I”?


Much is written about the silencing of women, without understanding the ways in which we silence ourselves.

If someone asks you directly what you want from life, can you answer? Equally difficult might be the question, why do you want to be a writer? Sometimes, these answers lie so deep in our inner being, that reaching the reasons why requires gaining access to the “I” self we simply don’t talk to often enough, largely because we’ve been conditioned not to.

The problem with being conditioned not to ask ourselves direct questions (“Is this what I want?” “Am I happy?” “What is it I need from life?”) is that we become voiceless; we silence ourselves, and so we become complicit in our inability to be heard by a society that isn’t necessarily encouraging us to have specific needs focused on what’s going on in your inner landscape.

You might even feel lost in your inner landscape; I know I’ve been without a map often enough. Whereas you might know precisely what your kids or significant other wants, you might not be able to put your finger on your own wants and needs.

Even in this day and age, even in a society that promotes women’s issues, it’s rare to be asked a direct question about who you are, what you want, and what you need. If I ask you to tell me about yourself, your life, and why you want to write, what will you answer? You might be stymied. It might be the first time in your life someone has asked you directly to account for what’s going on inside of you—and that’s understandable, but it’s not acceptable for our society to ignore this about ourselves, and I’ll tell you why.

The reasons you or I might have some trouble with the use of the personal pronoun, making it so we are effectively silenced when someone asks us about ourselves, are complicated—much more complicated than the feminist movement has ever been able to get at the root of, in my experience.

The reasons we all have trouble from time to time with the personal pronoun has to do with how we’ve been socialized. This is less a gendered issue than it is a societal one—meaning that everyone, female and male, is affected by this problem, to a greater or lesser extent.

Men are silenced, too, in somewhat different ways.

Men are silenced, too, in somewhat different ways.

I noticed quite awhile ago that in spite of numerous literary works and academic studies regarding women’s voices, being silenced, and the inherent differences between the way the sexes communicate, the feminist movement—brave, bold and daring at its best—has never been able to make substantive changes in the ways we communicate. 

The problem? Our very language itself, as well as the nature of the culture we’re raised in. You’ll find that you can’t have one without the other; I’ll explain.

We are all raised in a culture that uses certain, very specific, metaphors to describe life experiences. Our culture privileges language use that is “straight as an arrow.” We like to “get right to the point.” If you live in a culture that doesn’t do this, it’s likely you’re not from the West, and, most likely, you’re not an American. In America, in particular, everyone, male or female, is raised with the same set of expectations. It’s a linear culture. We expect our answers to be simple and straightforward.

In fact, I’m having trouble writing this sentence without using the standard metaphors we usually rely on. How do I find another way to say “straightforward”? I’ll have to use my thesaurus. How do I find another way to say “stay on track”?

The key to our language use are the ways in which language choices are determined by cultural values. Although we aren’t usually consciously aware of the underlying “why” of why we say the things we do, those sayings are, not-so-subtly, in my experience, shaping not only how we speak, but also how we think. We are never set free from the expectations of our culture as long as we use language unconsciously.

How does this affect you as an individual, especially one who is, perhaps, confused about what you want from life? If I had you sitting in front of me, would you beg me to “get to the point?” Even feminists say these things, which leads me directly to my point (for which my linear readers will, no doubt, thank me). Even those of us who promote humanist and feminist agendas are not free of our language use, because we’re never free of our culture and all its expectations.

Here’s the core of the problem: We might speak using the metaphor of linearity, but it isn’t how we think. We’re curvature-type people, we humans. We tell stories that go around and around. When asked to explain something that just happened to us, we might not start “from the beginning”. We’re maddening like that. It isn’t just women, either; men do it too. The human brain doesn’t work precisely the way our slapdash “time is money” culture would like.

And so those who need more time, more words, more creativity, are silenced in the face of the tapping foot of the impatient, narrow-minded linear metaphor. Another factor that contributes specifically to the silencing of women, however, is more pernicious and less easily spotted, and it feeds into the linear metaphor neatly. It is the culture we exist within, the culture of scientism, which is inherently distancing, mechanistic, and dehumanizing.

In case you don’t know what I mean, consider that until fairly recently, it was considered bad manners to speak in the first-person pronoun. One used the less personal pronoun, “one,” to describe one’s wants or needs. It was (and still is) considered grammatically correct, and although that’s useful when grammatically-correct writing or speaking is called for, it symbolizes the problem, which has to do with impersonalization, the distance between “I” and “one”.

Further, if you listen carefully enough, you’ll begin to notice that we not only live within a culture that privileges linearity; we also rely on a vocabulary of numbers, weights, measurement, and mathematics—the vocabulary of science. Although this part of my argument is too large to adequately address in one short piece, I will suggest that if you eliminate the vocabulary of science, as well as linear metaphors, from our language, there wouldn’t be much left to say.

Try it for a day; see if you can condense (a word borrowed from scientific experiments) your conversations into that which does not rely on science or linearity. It will prove (a science word!) to be a challenge. This is especially true in the land of academia, which is imbricated (my favorite academic word, which simply means “bricked in,” as in, “the woman was bricked into the wall, buried alive”) in scientific terminology, over-relying as academia does on proofs, hypotheses, and problems to solve.

So, if we are raised in a culture that uses two particular methods to express itself—one, the metaphor of linearity, and the other the vocabulary of science—then what should those who are caught in between do when they are voiceless in response to this impersonalized, mechanistic, linear methodology of thought? Feeling like you’ve been absorbed by the Borg yet? You should.


This societal silencing has been going on for a long, long time.

When a woman encounters a direct question about her inner landscape, therefore, everything she’s been taught to think is at war with the one metaphor that makes sense, the metaphor of organicism.

The metaphor of organicism includes the body, and does not exclusively privilege the mind. You will notice a few things about scientific vocabulary and the metaphor of linearity: they both came to social prominence during the rise of scientism, otherwise known as the Enlightenment, the era of Reason.

It was called the ‘enlightenment’ because its role was to cast light into the darkness that came before it, including the darkness of superstition, paganism, and what was perceived as the ‘ignorance’ of faith. This included the lack of knowledge about how the body, but most particularly the mind, worked.

Many important ideas were swept away during the Enlightenment, however. When society emerged from what became known as ‘the dark ages,’ we were no longer allowed to think like Plato (after the rise of Christianity, considered a pagan), who gave us the metaphor of organicism (an idea later appropriated by the Romantics, which only served to deepen the divide between that which is produced by nature, from all that is ‘man-made’).

The Romantics rediscovered Plato, the body, and emotion. Without them, I doubt we'd be having this discussion.

The Romantics rediscovered Plato, the body, and emotion. Without them, I doubt we’d be having this discussion.

Instead, Western society started thinking like Bacon, Locke, and Descartes, all of whom much preferred applying reason and, most importantly for my argument, logic, to life questions. In swept the rise of linearity and scientism.

Unfortunately for those of us who are not inherently scientific and linear, however, when we lost the organic metaphor, we also lost all that went with it, including metaphors relying on our bodies as a way of explaining reality. If you don’t buy into the metaphor of linearity (you don’t perceive the value in it) and you’re not inherently interested in the scientific way of approaching reality, where do you stand, especially if, now that logic is the dominant trope, we have no bodies, only brains?

I used to teach English composition at a research and development university. Frequently, my students were pursuing a science-related degree. Nothing about the training they’d received, or their life experiences, for that matter, prepared them for my style of teaching. I had one memorable day in particular when a student asked me why they had to use the personal pronoun “I” in their papers. Her question led to a 15-minute diatribe from me about the depersonalization in society brought about by the sciences and its perpetuation of emotional distancing.

For me, the reason scientism is such a problem is because it tells us that it’s okay, even desirable, not to use the personal pronoun—this means we forget to think in terms of our inner “I”. The prevalence of the metaphor of linearity reinforces the idea that we must ‘keep to the path,’ ‘keep to the straight and narrow,’ that we must not diverge from ‘the norm.’

Women's speech has always been a concern. This tarot card draws on a folk tale from The Blue Fairy Book (1889). Tarot cards are an example of non-linear uses of metaphor, as are folk tales and "old wive's tales."

Women’s speech has always been a concern. This tarot card draws on a folk tale from The Blue Fairy Book (1889). Tarot cards are an example of non-linear uses of metaphor, as are folk tales and “old wive’s tales.”

Who, under the influence of a society adhering, unconsciously, to these rigid, linear, rules, would allow themselves to meander a little, to stray from the path, watch daisies grow, or imagine himself in another, more colorful reality? To, heaven forfend, daydream aimlessly?

Finally, consider this: I think we’d agree that most, if not all, women in what we’ve come to think of as third-world countries lack what we’d call a ‘voice.’ We have no idea how an individual Pashtun woman, for example, thinks or feels about her life. We rely on educated men and women to tell these otherwise silenced women’s stories, just as the tribal woman herself relies on those from the West to tell her story, until or if she becomes educated, and self-confident enough, to tell her own story.

One thing is certain: those in the West will tell her story their/our way, using the dominant vocabulary and metaphors we all rely on to convey meaning.

And yet, these isolated, tribal women, nameless and faceless to most of us, are no more or less silenced than a woman in the West, if that Western woman, with every privilege, every social advantage, feels voiceless; that she is, effectively, silenced, by a culture that has given her a vocabulary she doesn’t identify with, and a set of metaphors she doesn’t believe in. Under those circumstances, you’re not using the language; the language is using you.

Feminism located one source of the problem for women: that we try to express ourselves while using the language of ‘the patriarchy.’ What feminism couldn’t accomplish, however, was to undo the prevailing beliefs and values that created that dominant language and vocabulary in the first place. Using a language unconsciously, we are stuck within it. Knowing that the metaphors and vocabulary binds you helps you break free of them, as well as some of their more pernicious expectations. What do you replace them with? That’s the challenge we all face, in my opinion: we must come up with a more inclusive language, one that more accurately reflects human reality—mind and body.

Ask yourself what’s preventing you from being heard, being seen, being known. The answers might surprise you; but what shouldn’t surprise you is that, if you’re a woman, you’ve been taught to think in such a way that prevents access to this complex inner world, for it’s a world that is recursive, not linear, and not necessarily bound by logic or language, either. Many of our deepest truths occur without ever attaching themselves to words. Much of what we know at the unconscious level are things we learned before we ever learned language. If you insist that it’s easy to give voice to places in your mind that are pre-verbal, therefore, you’re fighting an uphill battle.

The truth is, we’re not ‘straight as an arrow.’ In many ways, we’re curved. Only one one of those ways is physical.

Grammar as a political act

Link to The Grammar Police, Who Claims "Grammar Saves Lives"!

Grammar is typically taught very much as a form of “inside the box” thinking. In other words, there are rules, they’re packaged and sold as being fairly linear; follow them, and your writing will improve. However, the deeper truth about grammar is that it’s actually extremely complicated, and accurate use (an arguably impossible task) depends very much on who you read and why they wrote their grammar guide. Scariest of all, there are actually multiple grammars.

Let me start with my strangest-sounding proposition first, the notion that there are, in reality, multiple grammars. This statement flies in the face of what we grow up being taught, that there is “one” grammar, one way of doing something, and one true way to write. In fact, grammar use is highly political, it’s fluid, and it changes with the prevailing values of the dominant culture. You are forgetting, even as I write this, the grammar you learned to set in cement when you were a child.

The reason you’re forgetting is because you do not use the grammar you learned as a child. You don’t realise it most of the time, but it’s true. A great deal of what you learned when you were young is probably still valid, but there are once-important bits and pieces that no longer matter, that no one cares about, and that few people, except perhaps die-hard grammarians and linguists, think are important. In other words, the grammar you were taught to cling to as a life raft on the sea of errant words has been over-written by more recent information, and that newer information was written when you weren’t paying all that much attention.

So the concept of multiple grammars starts with the simple fact that there are acceptable ways of saying something and unacceptable ways of saying something. The second aspect to the concept of multiple grammars lies with the inherent politicization of the use of language when a grammar is applied to it; the grammar forms and restrictions determine ‘correctness’ at the cost of meaning, but if you’re representing the dominant voice in society, do you honestly care if a group’s meaning is erased by the power of your grammar? No, you do not. Your concern is to make the group learn ‘the correct way’ to say something.

Unfortunately for those you dominate with your grammar rules, they had their own forms, methods, and ways of saying something, now in the process of being erased by your need to ‘correct’ them. Grammars then become a method of controlling what people are allowed to say, how they are allowed to say it, and who, ultimately, will be heard. In this way, the deep structure of language is controlled by the very few in charge who are authorised by society to make the decision to approve or disapprove language use.

You begin to see the inherent risk of making it necessary to say something in any one way, when you start to realise how rigid, limiting, and controlling the concept of grammar can be. Grammar is never a value-neutral activity; it always carries with it the danger of oppressing the writer’s unique voice, creativity, and style, and replacing it with what you approve of, what the dominant voice in society approves of—this is what makes grammars political. Yet, control constantly slips through the hands of those who seek to manage the unmanageable. The very fluidity of language makes it an impossible quest for lost verb forms to try to tell someone to use the language the way it was used in your Aunt Sally’s era.

Further, the disparity between the grammar that is approved by those ‘in charge,’ and the grammar that is actually used, reveals the divergence between someone’s reality and someone’s ideal, and that territory belongs to philosophy. Grammar exists in that space very uneasily, and should come with a warning label: danger, you’re entering heavily politicized ground! User beware!

Just remember that correcting someone carries with it a tremendous responsibility. Who and what are you turning them into, precisely, when you correct their language use? You? Perhaps they’d like to be themselves instead.

Love of etymologies and dictionaries

“I love the dictionary. Perhaps a love that only English majors can fully appreciate. When I was teaching, I always made my students carry little dictionaries, and we would often spend an entire class period trying to figure out what things like ‘existentialism’, ‘modernism’, and ‘caucasian,’ actually meant.” 

I found the above statement somewhere online, written by a woman who understands what it is to love words, and their meanings. To go back to a word’s original source, its earliest recorded usage, is to connect with something more important than the quotidian use we’ve assigned it. I feel like I better understand not only the word itself, but the people and the time the word derives from. I have also told students, when they’re resistant to this process of looking up words in the dictionary, that if they do not understand where a word comes from, the language is using them, they’re not using the language.

To become more consciously aware of the language we’re using, it is crucial to look up the origins of words. To know that a word comes from Old English, for example, is to begin to trace its development over time, and to see how it has changed, how meaning and social values have changed too. There are also people who enjoy looking up phrases, to see where and how its vernacular usage began (when, for example, we began to call a low-hanging orange-hued moon a “harvest moon”).

If you ever try to explain a phrase you’re accustomed to, to someone from another culture, you begin to see the insularity of a phrase; how it didn’t travel to someone else’s country, how instead it stayed home, and might, in fact, be something only said in your “neck of the woods.” It isn’t until you begin thinking about the language from someone else’s perspective that you’re most likely to really, truly question each individual word. Those who are not familiar with your words might be the very people who spur you to try to understand where the word ‘furze,’ an Old English word of “uncertain origin” according to the Oxford American Dictionary, comes from.

I remember trying to explain to someone once what “trimming the verge,” a line from J.R.R. Tolkien‘s Lord of the Rings, meant. Having someone question a word, and not only when playing Scrabble, is a valuable occurrence. It makes you think much more about the language you’d otherwise use unthinkingly. You also discover what the word refers to, what it alludes to, what metaphor it’s relying on. If you’re used to thinking of the word ‘verge’ as ‘on the edge of’ something, you might not know that for the English, it refers to a herbacious border, a piece of vegetation that gets trimmed with cutting shears. However, once you know all the ways in which the word ‘verge’ can be used, it adds dimension and depth to your comprehension of one simple word.

Once you begin to question the origin of words, you run into a bit of a sticky wicket, in that you then have to determine if your source is reliable. Since there are so many dictionaries now, I tend to only buy those that are capable of giving their readers the most accurate etymologies.

I eschew (related to ‘shy,’ a word deriving from Old English scēoh [(of a horse) easily frightened,] of Germanic origin; related to German scheuen ‘shun,’ scheuchen ‘scare’; compare with eschew. The verb dates from the mid17th century) dictionaries that cannot tell me where a word comes from, its perambulations from place to place, its visits through time, the ways it has changed, the new clothes it wears each time someone decides to use it differently than they did before.

I think to want to know where a word comes from is a lot like wanting to understand one’s genealogy. It is genealogical research for word-lovers. Think of a word you’d like to know better, and go look it up!